I first heard of Andrea Dworkin in 1968. She had been arrested in an antiwar demonstration and jailed at the old Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village, where male doctors subjected her to brutal internal exams. Her name was in the news because she had gone public with her story. My good, kind, radical, civil libertarian parents thought this was ridiculous. What did she expect, this privileged white woman, this “Bennington girl”? It wasn’t that they didn’t believe her, exactly. It was that they didn’t see why she was making such a big, princessy fuss. It was like getting arrested and complaining about the food.
Andrea Dworkin died on April 9 at 58–she of the denim overalls and the wild hair and wilder pronouncements. Although she denied ever uttering the most famous soundbite attributed to her, that all intercourse is rape, she came pretty close: “Fucking is the means by which the male colonizes the female”; “in seduction, the rapist often bothers to buy a bottle of wine.” She argued that pornography was an instruction manual for rape, that women had the right to “execute” rapists and pedophiles; toward the end of her life she declared that maybe women, like the Jews, should have their own country. The counsel of despair, and crazy, too–but by then Dworkin was ill, not much in demand as a speaker and several of her major books were out of print. The 1980s were long over: On campus, the militant anti-rape marches and speakouts of Take Back the Night had morphed into cheery V-Day, which marries antiviolence activism to a celebration of women’s sexuality.
The antipornography feminism Dworkin did so much to promote seems impossibly quaint today, when Paris Hilton can parlay an embarrassing sex video into mainstream celebrity and the porn star Jenna Jameson rides the New York Times bestseller list. But even in its heyday it was a blind alley. Not just because porn, like pot, is here to stay, not just because the Bible and the Koran–to say nothing of fashion, advertising and Britney Spears–do far more harm to women, not even because of the difficulty of defining such slippery terms as “degrading to women,” a phrase that surely did not mean the same thing to Dworkin as it did to the Christian conservatives who helped make the antiporn ordinance she wrote with Catharine MacKinnon briefly law in Indianapolis. Like the temperance movement, antiporn activism mistook a symptom of male dominance for the cause. Nor did it have much to do with actually existing raped and abused women. “For God’s sake, take away his Nina Hartley videos” is not a cry often heard in shelters or emergency rooms. If by magic pornography vanished from the land, women would still be the second sex–underpaid, disrespected, lacking in power over their own bodies. Rape, battery, torture, even murder would still be hugely titillating to both sexes, just as in Shakespeare’s day, and women would still be blamed, by both sexes, for the violence men inflict on them. What made Dworkin’s obsession with pornography so bizarre is that she herself should have known it for a diversion. After all, she frequently pointed out that male dominance is entwined with our very notion of what sex is, with what is arousing, with what feels “right.” Like Foucault (who, as Susan Bordo pointed out, usually gets credit for this insight), Dworkin showed how deeply and pervasively power relationships are encoded into our concepts of sexuality and in how many complex ways everyday life normalizes those relationships. “Standards of beauty,” she wrote in Woman-Hating (1974), “describe in precise terms the relationship that an individual will have to her own body. They prescribe her motility, spontaneity, posture, gait, the uses to which she can put her body. They define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom. And of course, the relationship between physical freedom and psychological development, intellectual possibility, and creative potential is an umbilical one.” Somewhere along the way, she lost interest in the multiplicity and the complexity of the system she did much to lay bare.
Dworkin was an oversimplifier and a demagogue. She wouldn’t debate feminists who opposed her stance on porn, just men like Alan Dershowitz, thus reinforcing in the public mind the false impression that hers was the only feminist position and that this was a male-female debate. There is some truth to Laura Miller’s quip in Salon that “even when she was right, she made the public conversation stupider.” But, frankly, the public conversation is usually not very illuminating, and on the subject of women has been notably dim for some time. At least Dworkin put some important hidden bits of reality out there on the table. There is a lot of coercion embedded in normal, legal, everyday sexuality: Sometimes the seducer is a rapist with a bottle of wine. A whole world of sexist assumptions lay behind my parents’ attitude back in 1968: This is what happens to women who take chances, male brutality is a fact of life, talking about sexual violence is shameful, “Bennington girls” should count their blessings. Polite, liberal, reasonable feminists could never have exploded that belief system.
Andrea Dworkin was a living visual stereotype–the feminist as fat, hairy, makeup-scorning, unkempt lesbian. Perhaps that was one reason she was such a media icon–she “proved” that feminism was for women who couldn’t get a man. Women have wrestled with that charge for decades, at considerable psychic cost. These days, feminism is all sexy uplift, a cross between a workout and a makeover. Go for it, girls–breast implants, botox, face-lifts, corsets, knitting, boxing, prostitution. Whatever floats your self-esteem! Meanwhile, the public face of organizational feminism is perched atop a power suit and frozen in a deferential smile. Perhaps some childcare? Insurance coverage for contraception? Legal abortion, tragic though it surely is? Or maybe not so much legal abortion–when I ran into Naomi Wolf the other day, she had just finished an article calling for the banning of abortion after the first trimester. Cream and sugar with that abortion ban, sir?
I never thought I would miss unfair, infuriating, over-the-top Andrea Dworkin. But I do. And even more I miss the movement that had room for her.